The Archaic Ones

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Native American miner in Mammoth Cave
Prehistoric miner in Mammoth Cave

A man arose in the chill morning air, stretching his five-foot frame. He shivered slightly – the clammy river mist was slow to dissipate as it hung over the valley of the Green River. He carefully rolled his sleeping cloth and set it against the wall of the rock shelter that had kept the dew off him, and turned his attention to the fire, which had dwindled to orange coals. He had little use for the fire now, except to kindle the bundle of dry river-cane he had gathered by the bank the day before. He threw enough leaves and sticks on it to keep the embers alive while he took a drink from the water falling over the lip of the shelter, and ate a hurried breakfast of crushed hickory nuts and sunflower seeds. A little meat would have been welcome, but yesterday’s hunting had been poor.

His meal finished, he gathered his tools – digging stick, woven sack, and torches – slipped on his woven shoes, gathered his waistcloth around him, caught the torches ablaze in the fire, and turned to faced the vast darkness in the back of his shelter, which was, after all, the cave.

He ventured in, as his people had been doing beyond memory, to gather the white crystals from the cave walls. Earlier generations had picked clean the foremost parts of the cave, as high as a man could reach, making it necessary for him to venture deeper, miles in, to reach the crystals. Spent torches lay scattered among the rocks, torches left ages ago, yet preserved undecayed by some unearthly quality of this place.

The man continued, following the principal cavern, picking his way gingerly over rough and tilting stones, until, bend by bend, he reached a little-known reach of the cave. The white mineral sparkled dimly on a high ledge, and he made his way to it by agile navigation of hand- and footholds in the rock. Finding a good sample beneath a huge boulder, this man took his digging stick in hand and began to dig ...

Prehistoric miners in Mammoth Cave
Prehistoric miners

Two thousand three hundred years later, In 1935, Civilian Conservation Corps workers Grover Campbell and Lyman Cutliff climbed that selfsame ledge and discovered, with little more light than that given off by cane torches, the unnerving scene of an ancient tragedy. A human head and arm, the only visible parts of a body pinned beneath a six-ton boulder. A digging stick lay nearby, the cause of the boulder’s collapse – its owner had dug too deeply.

The body had been as well preserved by the cave’s constant temperature and humidity, and by nitre salt in the soil, as had the cane torches the archaic man saw when he entered the cave. By these remains, and those of several other “mummies” found in the cave, we have come to know him, and his people, much more intimately than we could have if we were forced to rely on surface archaeology.

Illustration of a woven moccassin found in Mammoth Cave
Illustration: woven moccasin found in Mammoth Cave

D.W. Higginbotham

Thousands of artifacts including gourd bowls, mussel shells, cord, pottery, woven cloth – even a handful of petroglyphs – attest to millenia of aboriginal exploration. From 4,000 years ago until nearly 2,000 years ago, this Native American culture explored and mined the upper three levels of Mammoth Cave for a distance of over six miles, seeking gypsum, selenite, mirabilite, epsomite, and other related minerals. Mysteries persist, however – archaeology has yet to provide an ironclad explanation of the use for which the minerals were intended. Medicine? Trade? Ritual? And after 2,000 years, where did these people suddenly go?

There are some secrets the cave keeps for itself.

Last updated: May 23, 2018

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